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Pomo locomoto
Grupo Corpo at Jacobís Pillow

Jacobís Pillow Dance Festival opened last week in the Berkshires with the Brazilian company Grupo Corpo. This popular 22-member ensemble were making their fourth visit to the Pillow, and never having seen them before, I was curious to see what makes them hot. Iím not sure I know yet.

Founded in 1975, the company embraces the whole spectrum of Brazilian culture ó European and African æsthetics, street and theater entertainments, ballroom expressions like samba, maxixe, waltz, and polka, and formal techniques like modern dance and ballet. Maybe thereís some martial-arts capoeira in there too. They all fuse in a highly energized movement concept that looks like itself more than anything.

Saturday afternoonís Family Matinee offered a single 43-minute dance, Nazareth, created in 1993 by resident choreographer Rodrigo Pederneiras. The score is a set of variations orchestrated and electronically transmuted by José Miguel Wisnik on music by the early 20th-century composer Enersto Nazareth. If the dance Nazareth had any one stylistic resonance, I thought it invoked the self-conscious jazziness of European modernism.

Both music and dance stream along non-stop, rechanneling into new rhythms, styles, and speeds without ever losing momentum. A woman bounces on to introduce the movement theme, basically a traveling step locked onto the music and punctuated with little two-legged jumps, hip jogs, and flappy arm thrusts. Other women join her, and the step doubles back on itself, twists into grapevine patterns, sidles into chassées. The upper bodies get more elaborate too, drawing attention to the shoulders, wrists, derrieres, smiles. The women are joined by a group of men, and from there the process just seems to run inexhaustibly.

There are solos and duets, large and small ensembles. There are lines weaving through each other. Thereís a group jittering across the edge of the stage in counterpoint to two women twirling and embracing upstage, seemingly stuck together. There are duets that look like a springy Lindy hop set to ragtime. Women fly through the air head first and are caught like logs by their male partners. A trio of men stride through, interjecting spins and fouetté turns between steps. Later on, men pop into stag jumps without preparation and without breaking tempo.

The stage groupings were constantly changing; it may not have been until the bows that all 18 dancers were on stage at once. They came and went almost too quickly to be distinguishable from one another. They kept changing costumes, too, adding or subtracting accessories to the womenís basic tights with bustiers and tiny see-through tutus in black and white and the menís gray tights and tailcoats and simulated spats. All the women wore black headbands with a single black feather perched in front. Two women did a duet wearing stiffened gauze panniers suggesting Spanish grand ladies of the Renaissance. The men sometimes went barechested, with suspenders attached to their tights.

The strange thing to me, the paradox really, was that though there seemed to be so much going on, hardly anything seemed to change. The movement theme kept expanding, the stage filled and emptied, the costumes paraded by. The even tempi and the dancersí unfailing connection to the beat kept the whole thing in a gradually escalating high gear. The audience went along; initially intrigued and caught up in the bounce, it got more and more excited. What kept Nazareth from feeling like just an applause machine was the dancersí dependable good spirits.

The idea of step dancing ó a regular but initially simple locomotion set to a drumbeat or other ongoing pulse ó runs through just about every kind of folk dance in the world. I kept trying to think why Grupo Corpo does not look like folk dancing. Perhaps because thereís so little rhythmic play and no improvisatory clutter. Whatís important about the show is propulsiveness, and design. You adore the dancers for having the stamina to keep it up, for the gestural embellishments or virtuosic feats that they can contain precisely within their fixed meters.

I donít doubt the learned assertions that Grupo Corpo has absorbed all of Brazilís multicultural influences, but the synthesized, ultra-physical, and visibly clarified form that emerges doesnít really elucidate any of them. In this way, itís linked to other pop-fusion companies on the international stage. At the post-performance Q&A, one of the dancers said she felt what was Brazilian about the company was its Carnaval spirit, and that came across. By the end of the dance, they looked positively euphoric.

Issue Date: July 2 - 8, 2004
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